Spotlight on Paris, France


            Paris may be the most beautiful city in the world.  The area around the Seine River is not only historically and culturally significant, but the architecture is stunning.  There is no more romantic stroll than a walk along the Seine River at dusk. The Eiffel Tower is visible all along the river.

            The Eiffel Tower is one of the world’s most famous landmarks.  It dominates the skyline of Paris and is visible from almost anywhere in the city.  It is beautifully lit at night, a spectacular sight.  It was the centerpiece of the 1889 World’s Fair and remains today as an icon of the city.  Expect long lines to both climb and/or ride (on elevators) to the observation decks.  Near the base of the tower, along the river Seine, are the embarkation docks for the Bateaux-Mouche, boats which ride up and down the Seine with their narrated tours of the sights along the river.  The boat ride is especially nice in the evening (Paris has very late sunsets in the summer) when it is cooler and the light is softer.

            To the east, the visitor will find the Place de la Concorde, an elegant square and the historical location of the guillotine used to execute King Louis XVI and others in 1793. Today it contains the Luxor Obelisk, an Egyptian monument over 3300 years old.  This square is a bit difficult to appreciate because of the noise and traffic. 

            Nearby, one will also find the Louvre, perhaps the worlds greatest and, rightfully, most popular Art museum. It is positively huge, and impossible to manage in one visit, so do what most tourists do — concentrate on a few galleries and/or pieces, then return in subsequent visits to see other parts of the museum.  The absolute must sees are the following:  Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, in the Italian collection (there are also other Da Vinci’s here, as well as a huge collection of other Renaissance paintings); and the famous sculptures of Venus de Milo (Aphrodite, the Greek Goddess of Love) and the Winged Victory of Samothrace, which are located in the Ancient Greek and Roman section. The Louvre is also famous these days as one of the settings for the popular novel and movie, The Da Vinci Code.

            Notre Dame Cathedral, one the most beloved houses of worship in the world, located on the Ile de Cite (city island), in the middle of the Seine, is another of the must-see attractions of Paris.  It has been immortalized in Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame. Its construction began in the 12th century and is certainly an imposing, Gothic edifice, perhaps the quintessential Gothic cathedral in the world.  Its facade has been much copied, while its gargoyles (strange-looking creature sculptures which adorn its exteriors) are the stuff of legend.  Note the row of statues (Kings of Judah) and the statue of Mary, mother of Jesus, on the facade. Inside, don’t miss the Rose windows. 

            Other areas of the city should also be included on everyone’s travel itinerary.  Walk west long the Champs Elysses (an extremely broad, tree-lined avenue, replete with upscale shops and restaurants) to the Arc d’Triomphe, which commands the upper end of the famous street. It is a monument, commissioned by Napoleon, to commemorate his victory at Austerlitz and is the largest memorial of its type in the world. The arch is fittingly located at the convergence of 12 huge avenues, which lead, like spokes of a wheel, away from it.  Visitors must walk through a tunnel under the very busy traffic circle to gain access to the arch.  Climbing the 284 stairs to the top rewards the visitor with a panoramic view of the city of Paris.  The view of the Eiffel Tower from here is especially beautiful.  

            Sacre Coeur, another of Paris’s beautiful churches, sits atop the Montmartre section of the city.  Its location is extremely prominent, and, although initially disliked by the Parisians, has become one of the city’s many symbols.  It is elegant in white, and is best reached by a funicular, since the climb is extremely steep.  It also offers a spectacular view of the entire city. Montmartre itself is still the domain of artists and provides a wonderful stroll.

            The most important excursion from Paris is to Versailles, the epitome of a kingly palace, the envy of monarchs everywhere, often copied, never duplicated.  It is located just (about 50 km or 30 miles) west of Paris and makes an excellent day trip.  There are numerous options for the visit.  Highlights include the Hall of Mirrors, the State Apartments, King’s Apartments, and the Gardens.  A guided tour is recommended to get the most from the visit, since guides offer many interesting tidbits of information.  Inside, no matter how the visit progresses, the cacophony of sound from various guides speaking myriad languages, each trying to speak louder that all the others, is disconcerting to say the least.  Try to arrive early in the day, before the hordes of buses and their tour groups.

            Another popular day trip is south to the town of Chartres to explore its famous Cathedral. It is considered a model of Gothic architecture and has been copied many times over the years. A cathedral has existed on this site since the 4th century, although today‘s gothic structure dates to the 12th century. It is an imposing sight for any visitor since it towers over the town and can be seen for miles. 

            The cathedral is famous for its stained glass windows and their very distinctive, glowing, “Chartres-blue” (only recently have scientists discovered that Sodium compounds may be responsible for its uniqueness.  Note also the portals over the doors. Much of the church is somewhat run down and should be restored.


            Gary’s Gem:

                        1.  Near Sacre Coeur, at the bottom of the hill, is the famous Moulin Rouge, a nightclub in the Pigalle (red-light) district.  It is certainly worth a look for those who can tolerate the atmosphere of smut and pornography. It still operates as a nightclub, in the evenings.

                        2.  Before leaving the Notre Dame area, walk across the Seine on the bridge to the rear of the church for a spectacular view of the flying buttresses, a distinctive characteristic of Gothic churches, actually an engineering requirement to support the arches, which allow the expansive height of these churches. 

                        3.  One of the most popular excursions from Paris is to Eurodisney, or Disneyland Paris, the European version of the famous theme park first constructed in Anaheim, California.  The European park is similar to its counterparts in the USA except for some of the details, such as language, etc. The park is composed of five major areas or “lands”, Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland, Discoveryland, and Main Street.  Each of these “parks within a park” has themed rides, authentic-looking buildings and architecture, as well as shops and restaurants. Disney Characters patrol the park and interact with visitors. An additional area, Walt Disney Studios Park, opened in 2002, showcases the world of motion pictures. It is a great experience for adults and children alike.

                        4. Try not to be disappointed by the Mona Lisa — many tourists are, since it such a small painting in such a large room, surrounded by many other more intimidating works.  The fact that the painting is behind glass is also disconcerting for some, since it makes picture-taking more difficult.  But a close look at the painting (the crowds do make it difficult to get a clear view) reveals its elegance and mystery.

                        5. Stroll through and/or relax in the Luxembourg Gardens, a treasure of tranquility in this very crowded city. 

                        6.  Splurge with a dinner at the Eiffel Tower, at its second floor restaurant (expensive but good food).  Your reservation (book early) avoids lines for the elevator. 

                        7.  Another possible excursion from the city is to Fontainebleau, a huge palace in the great forest south of Paris, which was loved by Napoleon as a place of solitude and contemplation.  Besides visiting the chateau, plan to spend some time hiking or wandering in the woods around the residence.

                        8. A stroll through the gardens at Versailles provides a welcome respite from the noise and the crowds.  It also provides a softer, less intimidating perspective of the palace than the front entrance. 

                        9. When in Chartres, follow the signs for the “panorama” for a lovely photo opportunity and to see the church standing dramatically above the town, on a rise.
                       10. My two (2) walking tours, posted on 9-20-08, offer access to most of the famous sights in the city.


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